Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at the American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.
(CNN) -- When President Obama announced on Wednesday his proposals to curb gun violence, no surprise: Gun advocates condemned it as the first step in a rapid slide toward tyranny.
The night before, the National Rifle Association released an ad calling Obama an "elitist hypocrite," because, the ad says, he's "skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school." (Obama had said in an interview last month that he was "skeptical" that the "only answer" was putting more guns in schools.) Republicans and Democrats alike condemned the NRA for using the president's children in a political attack ad, but the ad was actually quite revealing.
A sane person might argue that the president and his family require special protection because they face threats the rest of us don't. But the NRA and many of its most fervent supporters don't see it that way. As far as they're concerned, all of us are just as threatened as the person in the Oval Office. The fact that you're an ordinary person and not the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth doesn't mean you haven't already been targeted by an al Qaeda death squad or a murderous drug gang, so you'd better be prepared, not just with a gun but with an entire arsenal of military-style weaponry.
But the real threat in the fantasy world some gun owners have spun inside their heads isn't terrorists. You know the people I'm talking about: the "doomsday preppers," the angry tea partiers talking about "watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants," the folks who can't talk about guns for 30 seconds without bringing up Hitler (who, for what it's worth, didn't actually disarm the German people, as so many gun advocates believe). What's important isn't just that these folks are paranoid, it's who they're paranoid about: the United States government.
Take, for one vivid example, James Yeager, the CEO of a Tennessee company called Tactical Response. In response to the prospect of stricter gun laws, he posted a YouTube video saying, "If that happens, it's gonna spark a civil war, and I'll be glad to fire the first shot. ... I'm not letting my country be ruled by a dictator. I'm not letting anybody take my guns. If it goes one inch further, I'm gonna start killing people."
And who is it, exactly, whom he'd be killing in this fantasy of his? His neighbors? No, he'd be killing the duly constituted authorities of the United States. He's talking about -- maybe dreaming about -- the day when police officers or members of the U.S. military come to his door, so he can kill them. (Yeager later apologized after Tennessee officials suspended his concealed carry permit.)
OK, so this guy is an extremist. But there are thousands, maybe millions, of gun owners out there whose sentiments are only a notch or two more restrained. These people talk a lot about liberty and freedom and love to call themselves patriots, but they seem to have a real problem with democracy. In a democracy, if people are proposing a law you don't like, you criticize it, you argue against it, you campaign against it, you vote against the politicians who support it. But if you believe in democracy, you don't threaten to start killing people if it passes. You don't say that if you don't like a new law, you'll start an insurrection to overthrow the government.
Yet that's exactly what some people are saying, and it isn't just some lonely nut with a webcam and a YouTube account. People like him are spurred on by a conservative media that encourages them to believe that every Obama administration effort they disagree with isn't just something objectionable, it's the very definition of dictatorship.
If you're a regular listener to conservative talk radio, you've heard Barack Obama compared to Hitler and Stalin innumerable times, over every issue from health care to taxes (after Obama's press conference, one Fox News Radio host tweeted, "Freedom ends. Tyranny begins."). Since his election in 2008, supposedly respectable politicians have talked about simply refusing to obey laws they don't like, and some even proposed seceding from the union.
To be clear, most gun owners aren't stockpiling canned goods and assault rifles in preparation for some kind of societal breakdown that will give them permission to act out the violent fantasies they've been nurturing for years. But many would say that their "right" to own any and every kind of firearm they please is the only thing that guarantees that tyranny won't come to the United States.
Well, guess what: They're wrong. In today's world, most tyrants aren't overthrown by an armed populace. Nonviolent revolutions can result in a quick transition to democracy, while violent insurrections often result in long and bloody civil wars.
And here in America, it isn't 1776, and it won't ever be again. The founders may have thought citizens should be able to keep a musket if they wanted, but they also wrote into the Constitution that the government had the obligation to "suppress insurrections." They hoped that our freedom would be guaranteed by our laws and institutions, not by a guy down the block with an AR-15 and a chip on his shoulder.
They certainly didn't set up our democracy in the hope that every time any group of people didn't like a law that democracy produced, they'd abandon any pretense of support for our system of government and start killing the cops and soldiers who protect us. There's a word for people who dream about doing that, and it isn't "patriot."
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.